Taking on Being: Getting beyond Postmodern Criticism

By Martin, Michael | The Midwest Quarterly, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Taking on Being: Getting beyond Postmodern Criticism


Martin, Michael, The Midwest Quarterly


"This is the terrible product of a materialistic age: scholars write commentaries on art. But these academic explanations,

Faust commentaries, Hamlet commentaries, learned descriptions of the art of Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, are coffins in which genuine artistic feeling, living art, lie buried. If one picks up a Faust or Hamlet commentary, it is like touching a corpse."--Rudolf Steiner, The Arts and Their Mission (1923), 85.

"... as soon as 'the method' tunas criticism into a species of decoding, the man whose attachment to art is warm and direct must decline the game. He knows that the grand rule of life, Probability, also underlies art, and that such a rule can be applied only by intelligence, not a system.'"--Jacques Barzun, The Energies of Art: Studies of Authors, Classic and Modern (1956), 14.

"We are all sick of interpretation."--trans, of Jean Wahl, qtd. in The Structuralist Controversy (1966), 97.

Though I sometimes assume the role of literary critic, I must admit that there is something intrinsically unsettling about the very concept of literary criticism. I am not sure what the problem is. My immediate inclination is to blame criticism's parasitic nature: that it lives at the expense of another, or, more properly, "the other." But at best this is only a partial truth. My apprehension is probably what inclines me toward an appreciation for George Steiner's observation that a subsequent literary work is the best type of criticism. The Aeneid and Ulysses, according to his manner of reckoning, are commentaries on The Odyssey as well as creative works in their own fight. Anna Karenina performs the same service for Madame Bovary. "All serious art, music and literature," he writes, "is a critical act" (11). Steiner's insight reaches beyond notions of intertextuality or allusion and points to relationships--between separate works and their authors; between authors, works, and audience--that literally divine meaning. He terms these relationships experiences of "real presences."

The literary criticism George Steiner wrote of in 1989 and that we are accustomed to now, however, is very much different from that Rudolf Steiner (quoted above) encountered in 1923. Early twentieth-century criticism was of a more historical bent, focusing more on dates, sources, influences, and rhetoric than do late twentieth- or early twenty-first-century criticism. While more traditional modes of criticism are still to be found, by far the most prevalent approach to criticism is marked by the wide variety of self-reflective, idiosyncratic, subjective (though often, bewilderingly, professing to be objective) crystallizations of theory that can be categorized under the heading "postmodern." Criticism is much changed since 1923.

The difficult thing, of course, is finding a definition for postmodernism. We are in no danger of running out of definitions for this word. Indeed, when I asked a colleague--a scholar who teaches courses on postmodernism--how she would define it, she declined, saying, "It is impossible to define." My own definition is a general one, and one which many might find too wide. They are welcome to come up with their own definitions. Postmodernism is not a system of thought, not a philosophy, not a world view, but an attitude. As Socrates through Plato (or is it Plato through Socrates?) asserted that the rhetoric of the Sophist Gorgias was not the wisdom the latter professed it to be but "a knack;" so postmodernism is not a theory or set of theories but a knack, a habit, a proclivity particular to scholars of our day and age. The postmodernism habit is characteristic of approaches to literary criticism and studies in the humanities that have proliferated since the 1960s. These approaches are marked by fragmentation, uncertainty, irony, as well as by intellectual and spiritual ambivalence or even, at times, hostility. The postmodern gesture is one of malaise when confronting the world, of insecurity when confronting the self. …

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