Re: unusual language [postmodernism]

Cindy Wambeam (cwambeam@NMSU.EDU)
Wed, 9 Oct 1996 09:01:25 -0600

On Wed, 9 Oct 1996, Steve Finley wrote:

> Alright, since I've embarrassed myself enough on this list, and since
> my chickensh--oops, I mean, cowardly--office mate absolutely will NOT
> do this, preferring instead to die without knowing:
> What in the world is "pomo" theory?

Steve, sometimes people give seemingly flip answers to this question --
laughing or cringing, and talking about how postmodernism is
non-definable. Part of that is, I think, because pomo relies quite a bit
on a premise that defining and categorizing is problematic. It is
reacting against modernism/the Enlightenment Project, which promoted
positivist stances of control and categorization and Truth. And pomo is
very difficult to define because it embraces A LOT A LOT A LOT of
different things.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to take a class with Marilyn Cooper (a
wonderful teacher, and a great theorist). She started off by asking the
class to define postmodernism, or what we thought it might be. Most of
us had no idea or we had very fragmented understandings. It took a good
part of the semester before our fragments made the turn toward comprehension.

Marilyn's definition is a historical one. She began with a question:
"are the conditions of everyday life greatly enough different that we
need to abandon the modernist enlightenment project? People who say yes,
are postmodernists. People who say no (Habermas, David Harvey) are not."

Postmodernism applies primarily to Western Civilization (many of the ideas
being promoted within pomo are not new at all for Asian and African
countries, for instance). While it is rooted in theories of Foucault,
Heidegger, Jameson, Horkheimer & Adorno (and many others), around 1968 is
when several theorists identify the shift to postmodernism.

Some say that pomo is fatalistic and stresses a "who cares" philosophy,
others (like Marilyn) turn toward pomo as a way of stressing individual
agency and subjectivity.

Often pomo writers and artists can be very difficult to understand because
they are making a move against modernist assumptions of language and
reasoning. Pomo theorists rely on dialectics, fragmented or webbed
processes, multimedia approaches, and multiple voices. Yet, many of us
have learned a specific type of reasoning, based in modernist/positivist
logic, and it can be hard to get at what is going on in pomo discourse
(which is rejecting those sorts of logic, even in writing). [this is, I
think in part, why the notorious conference announcement was difficult for

I've gone on for a while, so I'm going to end by recommending a couple of
books. One of the most accessible introductions to postmodern theory is
in Lester Faigley's "Introduction" to _Fragments of Rationality:
Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition_. A more rounded out
introduction to postmodernity is the book by David Harvey, _The Condition
of Postmodernity_. Now, Harvey ends up concluding that pomo is NOT a big
enough shift to actually signify a change in history, and when I began
reading his book I agreed with him. By the end, however, his arguments
convinced me of the opposite -- and I do see it as a vast shift that
affects much of Western thought and society.

I'm still stumbling through my own definitions and understanding, so I
hope I haven't just confused you more. :> But I think that pomo is very
tied to technorhetoric and rhetorical theory in general, and I find it
important to my research and studies.


_ .........................
___(_) _ __ Cindy Wambeam : Oedipa, to retaliate,:
/ __| | '_ \ New Mexico State University : stopped believing:
| (__| | | | | English department : in them:
\___|_|_| |_|.......==><==....:.(The Crying of Lot 49):