Friday, January 20, 2012

Postmodern Writing

Mathematician Jeffrey Shallit links to a 2004 paper titled “Cultural Topology: An Introduction to Postmodern Mathematics.” Written by Brent Blackwell, a professor of literature at Ball State, the essay exemplifies postmodern academic prose as unclear writing.

The paragraph below seems to be the thesis:
This essay develops a new way of thinking about the cultural relationships among and within the sciences and the arts through a new understanding of the term postmodernism that at once derives from literary theory and the mathematical discipline of topology. While topology forms the main vertebra of this connective approach in its capacity as the mathematics of connectivity, quantum mechanics and non-Euclidean geometry -- the atlas and axis of this spinal column -- form the context through which this “postmodern” approach will develop. However, in order to position topology as a “postmodern” branch of mathematics, some brief explanations are in order: first, regarding postmodernism, and finally regarding topology.
Only three sentences make up the paragraph; the first two each contain over 40 words, which is a lot. Sentence one promises “a new way of thinking about” the sciences and the arts, something to do with illuminating cultural relationships between them. Sentence one also introduces the essay’s sales hook, “a new understanding of the term postmodernism.” The source of the newness, Blackwell says, will come from his combining usage of the term in literary studies with ideas taken from the mathematical subject of topology. To re-cap: one sentence, 40-plus words, and two undefined topics. Topic one is the relationship of the arts and sciences; topic two is postmodernism infused with topology.

Sentence two confuses matters further. Blackwell uses “vertebra” as the metaphor for his argument. Topology, he explains, will be the argument’s main component. But then he abruptly brings in quantum mechanics and non-Euclidian geometry, fitting the two subjects into the metaphor without explaining how the whole argument relates to the initial point about the arts and sciences. In two sentences, we have come a long way. Sentence one starts with a new way to think about the arts and sciences. It ends with a new way to think about postmodernism. Then sentence two tells us our time will be spent on topology--and also quantum mechanics and non-Euclidian geometry.

Blackwell’s paragraph is a fucking mess. It’s subject is poorly defined and sprawling. It’s vague, verbose, and technical. The entire essay is the same way. In some circles, however, such prose remains perfectly acceptable. While postmodernism has largely died and been replaced by the digital humanities, it has influenced academic writing. Today’s academic writing tends toward clarity and away from stylistic excesses, at least from what I have seen in two years “back” in the academic world. Yet, postmodernism was never only about style; it opened subjects. An English major could focus on favorite novels and the practice of quilting, on poetry and feminism, on the teaching profession and politics. Postmodernism made everything the subject, and everything was subject to study, discussion, and critique.

I am sentimentally attached to postmodernism, even to its academic writing style. From the mid-1990s to 2002, when I was a full-time graduate student in a literary studies program, my writing style resembled Blackwell’s. I don’t have an example on hand of my worst writing offenses, but I have posted here part of what would have been the second chapter in my old dissertation:
To understand how different edited texts of the same literary work construct that work differently, we need a tool for capturing the structure and functions of literary language--that is, of literary language as it becomes represented in and through text. In The Literary Work of Art, first published in German in 1931, Roman Ingarden provides such a tool by demonstrating that the literary work has a heteronomous existence, existing both on its own and dependent upon the conscious activity of a reader. Ingarden gives us a sophisticated picture of the internal ontological constitution and articulation of the literary work and its world. Because edited texts result in part from the conscious, critical acts of editors, Ingarden’s model can be used to compare different edited texts and gauge the effects of their differences on our apprehension of them and their presented worlds.
Although I would love to make a few changes to this paragraph, I don’t think it's bad writing. I also see in it hallmarks of postmodern writing. For example, “literary language as it becomes represented in and through text” (emphasis added) is a postmodern formulation. Compare it with Blackwell’s “among and within the sciences and the arts.”

Blackwell and I also share a trope, a writing template in which the scholar uses terminology from another field to generate insights about fashionable or too familiar subjects. For instance, Blackwell adopts the language of topology to make points about academic animosity between the arts and sciences. For another instance, my paragraph tells readers I’ll apply literary critic Roman Ingarden’s concepts to a study of scholarly editions in medieval literature. The dissertation project I am working on now uses this trope, although not in quite the same way.

The point is that the literary scholar does more than simply read literature or argue a position in the arts-versus-sciences debate. This factor accounts for the appeal of postmodernism and the pretenses of its prose: we're doing more than reading books and making appeals. After all, at some point, one doesn't feel there's much else to say about "Young Goodman Brown" or "Ode on a Grecian Urn." To say something new about these works or about the world, one needs to set them in a new context. Postmodernism allowed for this, first by emphasizing that words held underlying assumptions and connotations and then by arguing that literary and non-literary words could be analyzed in the same way. One could deconstruct a political speech as well as a sonnet. One could rhetorically analyze any cultural feature--temples, malls, quilts, treatises, dissident movements, academic disciplines.

While postmodernism appealed to me because it laid open the world to language-based study, its obfuscating prose was difficult to emulate. I tried to write the way the big names did: Derrida, Spivak, Jameson, Lacan, Butler, Kristeva, Foucault, de Man, Deleuze and Guattari, and Zizek. To me, their way was erudite, playful, and complex. For example, here's Brian Massumi, a pretty good practitioner of the postmodern style, in a 2005 article:
In March 2002, with much pomp, the Bush administration’s new Department of Homeland Security introduced its color-coded terror alert system: green, “low”; blue, “guarded”; yellow, “elevated”; orange, “high”; red, “severe.” The nation has danced ever since between yellow and orange. Life has restlessly settled, to all appearances permanently, on the redward end of the spectrum, the blue-greens of tranquility a thing of the past. “Safe” doesn’t even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception. Insecurity, the spectrum says, is the new normal.

The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety. In the aftermath of 9/11, the public’s fearfulness had tended to swing out of control in response to dramatic, but maddeningly vague, government warnings of an impending follow-up attack. The alert system was designed to modulate that fear. It could raise it a pitch, then lower it before it became too intense, or even worse, before habituation dampened response. Timing was everything. Less fear itself than fear fatigue became an issue of public concern. Affective modulation of the populace was now an official, central function of an increasingly time-sensitive government.

The self-defensive reflex-response to perceptual cues that the system was designed to train into the population wirelessly jacked central government functioning directly into each individual’s nervous system. The whole population became a networked jumpiness, a distributed neuronal network registering en masse quantum shifts in the nation’s global state of discomfiture in rhythm with leaps between color levels. Across the geographical and social differentials dividing them, the population fell into affective attunement. That the shifts registered en masse did not necessarily mean that people began to act similarly, as in social imitation of each other, or of a model proposed for each and all. “Imitation renders form; attunement renders feeling.” Jacked into the same modulation of feeling, bodies reacted in unison without necessarily acting alike. Their responses could, and did, take many forms. What they shared was the central nervousness. How it translated somatically varied body by body.
Here, the prose gets denser as we go along. The beginning of the third paragraph is classic postmodernist academic writing, with blocks of phrases stacked after one another. Figurative language gets ever more elaborate, and the references of words become hard to discern. I was one person who wanted to write this way. The style spoke to how the ideas and scope of our work went way beyond "This poem represents man's inhumanity to man." Other academic disciplines used jargon and had their own prose conventions, so why not literary studies? Why were we supposed to remain the disheveled daydreamers in rumpled tweed jackets?

Even as a graduate student, however, I sensed that postmodern academic prose was overwrought. This was a product of my vanity. I thought I had good ideas, so I felt it was important for readers to understand them as I did. Later, when I joined the business world and led proposal teams, I largely abandoned the postmodern style, although I still use too many paratactic, polysyndetic, and preposition-conjunction-preposition constructions. Clear and relatively simple statements are prized in my current gig, which suits me fine. I am an inveterate editor and reviser who loves clear, punchy prose. I still hold the lessons of my graduate studies, that apparently straightforward prose sometimes contains nasty presuppositions. Indeed, the postmodern style emerged partly as an attempt make them explicit. Ideally, the postmodern writer wanted both to say something and to analyze the saying--at the same time.

It was a doomed wish; that's why postmodernism declined and the style receded.

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