Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Postmodern Library, or Freud in the Garden of Good and Evil

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

The Postmodern Library, or Freud in the Garden of Good and Evil

Article excerpt

The Library, as it exists today, is very much a product of modernism. The Library's reason for being, as a cultural institution, usually involves the idea that humanity is enrolled in a nonracist, nonsexist, sort of universal Dale Carnegie-type improvement course. And most librarians seem to agree with this view, believing that libraries are an integral part of this ongoing project for human self-improvement and uplift. But the rise of postmodernism raises some serious questions. What happens to the library now that the project of modernism is slowly being abandoned? What happens as more and more of our popular culture reflects the views of the postmodern era? What is wrong with the modern library, and why should it think about becoming a postmodern library?

The library is a modernist project, and as such it participates in the use of discipline. According to Michel Foucault, the focus of liberal political theory under modernism was on the restraint of the political power of the monarch, but the postmodern focus is on power, as it is exercised by the professions, that must concern us (89).

The rise of the professions, and the subsequent rise of the Mediocracy, has led to the exercise of power through a thousand smaller rules and regulations. Power has become a normative process, rather than a process of punishment. For example, every time a library fine is levied, it is an exercise of a normative function--an attempt to being the individual patron into line with the expectations of the institution. This may seem a minor thing to most of us, but a similar power exercised by the IRS can become a nightmare for the individual caught up in an audit. Or, better yet, imagine the fate of the people at Waco who died for dealing in vaguely illegal gun purchases. Some people might prefer the good old days when all they did to you is put you on "the rack." What we need is a philosophy of librarianship designed to counter this tendency to maintain an excess of control over our collections, our patrons and ourselves. Or, as Todd May has suggested, what we need is a politics of diffusion and multiplicity, a politics that confronts power in a variety of irreducible and often surprising places" (95).

The rise of the professions, and with it the rise of bureaucratic power, has come under question in recent years, and sometimes under outright criticism. Two examples will suffice to show why this has happened. Recently, Sergeant-Major Gene McKinney was tried for allegedly sexually harassing six women under his command and for obstruction of justice. A military court found him innocent of the sexual harassment charges, but convicted him on the obstruction of justice charge, primarily because the evidence of his guilt on this charge was so obvious that he could not be found "not guilty" without the military itself being charged with obstructing justice. This case bears a remarkable similarity to the original trial of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King. And it proves, once again, that an institution, or a profession, cannot regulate itself in a fair and just way.

Similarly, on the same day that Sergeant-Major McKinney received his reduction in rank, the Vatican released its long awaited statement "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (Holocaust)." This document was immediately criticized by Jewish leaders as "too little, too late" and condemned by others as a whitewash of Pius XII and the role he played, or failed to play, in trying to stop the Holocaust. In some ways this document is reminiscent of the decision that came out of the Vatican a few years ago, maintaining that it was correct in its original condemnation of Galileo. The problem is that institutions, including libraries, have a difficult time criticizing themselves, let alone making changes in their practices.

Obviously, libraries need to, first, recognize that they are modernist institutions that have modernist goals and employ modernist techniques to achieve those goals. …

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